India’s First Organic State


Tea plantations on the hillside. PHOTO: Reuters/ Rupak De Chowdhuri

The buzzword is organic. From grocery store shelves to textile designers to travel. At the center of this phenomenon is respect to the land, cognizance of the immense potential of living organisms, acknowledgement of a way of life that has restorative powers. Today, India hears that message loud and clear in the North-eastern hill state of Sikkim.

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WED 2013 : Learning To Finish That Meal…

WED 2013 - Raxa Collective

On June 5, we’ll celebrate World Environment Day. This year UNEP focuses on Food waste/Food Loss. At Raxa Collective we’ll be carrying out actions and sharing experience and ideas. Come and join us with your tips to preserve foods, preserve resources and preserve our planet.

As a child, I was always told to finish eating my meals because there were starving children in poor and faraway lands that would gladly trade places with me.  I could not exactly picture what that meant, and the rebelious part of me always wanted to stick a postage stamp on my plate and send it to these children.  No one who grew up with such abundance, I think, could trade the fresh memory of a full meal for a clear picture of hunger.

Being from Texas (and proud of it, so don’t mess with that), with its long “bigger and better” history and wonderful mythology of abundance and its can-do certainty, I did not “get it”.  Now, the hazy memories of those dinners and parental wisdom are coming into perspective with my ability to follow and understand news from around the world.

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Reflections in the Rain

The song of the rain washes over me.  It soothes my soul and calms my buzzing thoughts.  Never would I have imagined forming a sense of respect and admiration for this wet, and often noted, overwhelming natural phenomenon.  Yet, the monsoon rains of Kerala are magically revitalizing, relieving, and so much more.

Like blessings the droplets fall on my skin, awakening my soul from its lazy trance.  I am increasingly able to understand how artists find it inspiring, how birds find it song-worthy.  I am as thankful as the parched earth that I relinquished many of my hesitations towards the rain; my mind is open and ready for more.

When the rain ceases and the sky reveals the sun’s rays, it is a rainbow I hope to see.  I find its colors in the cheerful tunes of the birds, the slow rustle of the leaves, and the intermittent chirps of the emerging insects.  These few, along with many other, “colors” create a reflection of hope in the puddles of my mind.

As my days increase, I do not expect my puddles of misunderstanding, disbelief, or hesitation to completely dissipate.  I only desire that, like I have with the rain, I am able to find positive and inspiring reflections within them.

Optimism and Opportunity

Many of my posts reflect my outlook to err on the upside of life’s circumstances.  I try to drown out my inner (and often powerful) pessimism by surrounding myself with positivity and optimism.  I find that this is a careful balance of being hopeful while remaining realistic.  Today, when I was taking a break from my coursework, or the slightly negative part of my day, I watched an encouraging Ted Talk that I think demonstrates hopeful realism.

Johan Rockstrom suggests that the earth is at a point where major transformation must occur.  He optimistically recommends that we use and continue to use crises as opportunities and local initiatives to transform and sustain life.  Also, he makes a realistic statement that climate change is not our biggest problem only a symptom of our land use.

I found this talk engaging and thought-provoking.  I agree that I transformation is soon to happen and I look forward to being a part of it.

Needing Mr. Miyagi

Anyone who has ever been to ski slopes may have experienced small, pint-sized, infant skiers buzzing down the hills.  As a veteran skier of 18-years, I proudly proclaim that I was once one of these daring children.  However, I learned this past weekend that through the years I have lost this fearlessness when I was challenged to try snowboarding.  I would love to boast that my first run was very similar to this video, but the aching of my entire body keeps me truthful as if to say, “Ha!  You wish, Meg!”

Several times I met the side of the mountain and regardless of the many parts of my body that hit, the solid surface was resilient to my attacks; in fact, the bruises that continue to surface would argue that it fought back with increasing firmness.  The absence of soft, powdery snow brought my awareness to this season’s lack of typical winter weather, and it drew my attention to the resort’s snow-making cannons.  Continue reading

Positively Happy

My high school chemistry teacher always said, “Don’t be negative; be positive.  Multiply the love and divide the hate,” while she used her hands and fingers to represent each mathematical symbol.  This phrase would surface in my memory occasionally, but I must admit I rarely took it to heart.  However, I was preparing for a presentation about affirmations when I stumbled across a Ted Talk that affirmed this old saying.

I found this short speech relatable, funny, and surprisingly thought-provoking.

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Confidence in Dreams

It has been a struggle to pick topics to write about for the past several weeks, and in my innate pursuit of perfectionism I became wrought with indecision.  I could write about sustainable facilities design; I could uncover the truth about many LEED-certified buildings; I could even write about the ecology-based dormitory where I am writing this now.  But among these various topics, I could not find one that I felt “good enough” to write about at this time.  So to dissolve some of my indecision, I chose to reveal some of my mind’s musings, many of which the perfectionist side of me deems crazy, but day-by-day I am learning to embrace.

Each morning, I wake to the sound of my alarm clock and the chime of my smartphone being flooded with emails.  A month ago I thought nothing of this activity, but lately I have found it unnerving.  The annoyance I am feeling developed over my winter break. Continue reading

Strengthening Helpers’ High

Lately, I have been pondering altruism, one’s unselfish devotion to the well-being of others often without regard to personal well-being.  I admit I am befuddled by the concept.  It challenges theories of evolution and even caused Charles Darwin to question his own theory of natural selection—how could these acts of self-sacrifice exist in a world full of the fittest habitants, that possess only an incentive to survive and reproduce?   Regardless, I find it very encouraging to witness such selfless behaviors from my fellow mankind.    This behavior takes many forms in many aspects at many different times.

For instance, I reflect on the aftermath of September 11, 2001.  This date was one of the earliest times in my life when I acknowledged altruism’s existence.  I remember people gathering in tribute to the dead, celebrities organizing benefit concerts to raise money, and yellow ribbons streaming across nearly every home and shirt lapel signifying compassion for lost lives.  After Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, citizens all over the nation offered their support; my family even opened our home to refugees for a few weeks.  Similarly, this year’s September flooding of the southern tier of New York and the recent damaging snow storms of the East Coast have brought out the kindness and generosity of neighbors.  From the Flight 93 passengers to storm rescuers, altruism spurs many questions: Why are some people willing to help even at their own expense?  Why do some feel the urge to help more strongly than others?  Can altruism be learned or is it innate? Continue reading

An Abundant Life

I recently read an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Living to 100 and Beyond.”  As I read about the technology that is rapidly increasing human longevity, the movie Death Becomes Her began replaying in my mind.  I imagined myself following in Meryl Streep’s and Goldie Hawn’s footsteps and taking some magic potion that makes me immortal.  However, instead of the body deteriorating with age like the Streep and Hawn rivalry, advances in modern technology will likely not only increase life span but also health spans.   Living for centuries may seem appealing on the surface, but we should consider the overall effects of a longer life.

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Profile: Varghese & Resource Management

A few days ago I spoke with Varghese, the restaurant manager and head of the food and beverage department here at Cardamom County, who prides himself in running a tight ship and making sure that guests are at their happiest. Varghese is another long-time member of the Cardamom County family, originally arriving here eleven years ago, in 2000. Having taken a two-year hospitality course in Ravipuram in Ernakulam (the same district housing Cochi), at a school that has now shifted to become the Fort Munnar Catering College in the misty mountains of nearby Munnar, and training with Taj Group of Hotels, he arrived to fill the role of a restaurant supervisor.


Varghese told me about his Uncle Phillip who was one of the many well-educated people from Kerala who went over to a Gulf country, in this case being Bahrain. We talked about this brain drain, which Varghese mentioned had been going on since as early as the 1970s. The highly educated people and professionals of Kerala go in search of new opportunities, higher living standards, and money to send back home. Varghese also talked about Arabic being a language that is not too difficult to pick up, especially because of the difficulty and speed with which the native tongue of Malayalam is spoken. However, what is interesting to note is the stark contrast of climate between the Gulf countries and Kerala, the former being very dry, arid, and hot with the latter being humid and comfortably cooler especially at higher altitudes near the Western Ghats such as here in Kumily, Idukki. Continue reading

Profile: Chef Pradeep & Indian Cuisine

Yesterday I met and spoke with another longstanding member of the Cardamom Country crew, Executive Chef, Mr. Pradeep. Having been affiliated with this resort since its inauguration  in November, 1999 (in fact starting two months prior to that for training), he serves as a kind of memory box for Cardamom County, not least about its cuisine.  But his  family heritage is intertwined with this location in a fascinating way too.

Chef Pradeep explained that his family hails originally from the state of Maharashtra.  His maternal grandfather came down to help construct the Mullaperiyar Dam 120 years ago, mentioned in greater detail in Michael’s post Damn Dams and Macaques. Thus, Chef Pradeep was born in Thekkady very close to where Cardamom County was eventually built, although he spent most of his life up until college in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He moved back to Thekkady after he married his wife and decided to settle down at his place of birth. His wife had a government job, which is held in especially high regard here in Kerala, namely for its stability and the pension received later in life. Continue reading

Profile: Mereena & Sustainable Housekeeping

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Mereena, the head of the housekeeping department at Cardamom County. Mereena has been here since 2003, and started from the bottom rung of the housekeeping department ladder. Mereena explained to me how she was successively promoted six times.

She began as a trainee housemaid, and then progressed to official housemaid and then to senior housemaid. Next she became housekeeping desk assistant, then trainee housekeeping supervisor, and then housekeeping supervisor and finally Room Experience Officer and head of housekeeping. Taking full charge of the department required thorough and extensive knowledge of housekeeping but maintaining that authority has required managing responsibly.  In multiple senses of that term.

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Ramírez, Reading & Responsibility

The presenter introduced Sergio Ramírez with all the formal flourish that the Spanish language provides for; a laudatory salute that seems unique to places where poets serve as public servants.  The presenter mentioned the publications Ramírez has contributed to; the number of his essays, short stories, and novels; told of his political history and his creation of Nicaraguan publications and organizations of reform. The presenter was obviously very proud of having such an influential man in the room, and finally said, “I give you, author, poet, thinker, ex-president Sergio Ramírez!”

(c) Overdue Media LLC, used with permission

The man who has given talks at over forty academic institutions around the world (including Cornell University) took the podium. “Thank you for the very generous introduction,” he started.  And what he said next illustrates the difference between poets and politicians. Continue reading

Profile: Ratheesh & Wellness

Lately I have been speaking and spending time with Ratheesh at the front desk and around the resort. Ratheesh is an ayurvedic therapist and practitioner and also the resident yoga teacher at Cardamom County. It was actually Ratheesh’s grandmother, who he respectfully refers to as Thankamma, who taught him yoga techniques from a young age. We also discussed what inspired Ratheesh to enter the ayurvedic trade and his response was his family on his mom’s side had always been interested in this 5000-year-old medicinal trade. Dr. Leela Kumary, Ratheesh’s aunt, who is an ayurvedic doctor first inspired him to pursue a career in ayurveda from as early an age as ten.

Having grown up in the backwaters of Allepey, Ratheesh talked about bathing in the waters of the half-salty, half-freshwater due to the opening and closing of the floodgates in-between the dry and rainy seasons. He also told me about his one and a half year training in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu in Ayura and the following one year practical residency at the Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Hospital in Kaladi, Ernakulam, near Cochi. This was followed by a transfer to Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Hospital branch in Mumbai, Maharashtra for one year where he had a great time sightseeing and living in the big city, especially close to Bollywood. However, in the end Ratheesh missed Kerala, especially citing the south Indian cuisine he grew up with, and returned to practice ayurveda and teach yoga within the hospitality industry. Continue reading

A Campesino Breakfast Revisited

About three weeks ago, I was on the Campesino Breakfast Tour when I had the chance to see a boa sleeping in the chicken barn. This morning, the collection and preparation of breakfast ingredients went by without such an exciting event. But since unlike last time today I had a video camera with me, I can share some of the audiovisual details of the breakfast tour that were lost last time. I still recommend reading the previous post for a more elaborate text description than that which you will find here.


When we left the fowl barn and headed to Doña Candida’s traditional Nicaraguan house,  Continue reading

Profile: Jijo & Night Duty

Over the past few weeks it’s been great getting to know some of the extremely friendly, open, and welcoming members of Cardamom County working with them on a daily basis. One such member is Jijo, who I’ve had the pleasure of spending a few night auditing duties with and even going down to the local gym together with a bright red sign and a muscular fellow plastered to it aptly entitled “Masterpiece”.

Jijo actually started out at Cardamom County just short of a year ago, which means this August will be his first year anniversary as a part of the team. Before this, however, Jijo talked to me about his two years at Club Mahindra’s Tusker Trail, which was an enjoyable stay where he acquired the majority of the English skills he holds today through persistence and practice with guests and colleagues. However, because it was more of an exclusive club atmosphere, there were many regular visitors who were mainly originated only from India. Thus, Jijo came to Cardamom County because he wanted to meet many different kinds of people from all over the world including people of different cultures, religions, ideas, and languages to learn new things every day, which also encompasses what is his favourite part about the hospitality industry.

But Jijo’s real passion was triple jumping, and long jump on the side. The sport as he described it requires extreme physical fitness in conjunction with a high level of technicality and a precise balance and coordination of arms and legs to achieve the longest distance possible. Continue reading

Back to Nature

I was recently walking around in a neighborhood park, and I saw birds splashing in a pool of water.  I watched a pair of squirrels play tag up and down a large oak tree, and I admired an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand in a flower garden.  Then, I heard a car door slam and my eyes beheld children entering the park hardly lifting their gaze from their electronic devices as debris flew from their car.  As I raced to retrieve and dispose of the litter, my mind quickly volunteered pieces of itself to give to them and their parents.  How could this world’s future generation be so oblivious to the natural environment?  And especially when global climate issues are so prevalent? Continue reading

A Thousand Miles

I recently watched a video that became a personal challenge.  It brought to mind that famous Lao Tzu quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

After watching this video, I arrived at the equation: small changes = sustainable.  In other words, sustainability is the thousand mile journey; small changes are the baby steps that get us there.  This video highlights our ability to grow as we challenge ourselves to do something new for a mere thirty days.  I thought and thought of something that could be worthy to merit a thirty-day challenge; however, it was then that I realized that I was taking the small step out of the equation—no task is too small towards my sustainable journey.

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The Fundamental Question

It’s something I ask myself every day. I wake up, untangle myself from my bedding, and ask…Why on earth am I here on this planet? I reassure myself with some grounding answers, and once I get a glimpse of the world outside my window I answer like this…

Sustainability is my passion. Sustainable societies. Sustainable economies. Sustainable environments. Got the idea? Basically, my goals focus on sustainable lifestyle for sustainable futures. To achieve this, I not only try practicing an enduring lifestyle, but I also live to promote the conservation efforts of others around the word.

Having been raised in a developed country where varieties of information seem endless, it excites me when less informative, developing countries make strides towards conservation.  Here, I will share my excitement as I discover more about global conservation initiatives, and, in turn, hopefully my accounts will inspire citizens of all originations to join these efforts to conserve and protect the beauty this planet and its inhabitants have to offer.

An Introduction

Before I post again about things of substance, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself to our readership, to share my interests and goals, and to spell out more clearly the reason to the madness of my earlier posts. If I’m not mistaken, my fellow contributors will be doing the same over the next few days.

I am, nominally, Michael Muller. In the fall, I’ll be a senior at Amherst College, where I study, among other liberal arts ‘disciplines,’ Political Science, in particular political theory and the history of political thought. I have a peculiar fascination with how different groups’ and individuals’ concepts and philosophies affect and create attitudes, and how these attitudes influence action. If this all sounds highfalutin or like pseduo-psychology, you’re on the right track.

Self-deprecation aside, however, I also have a passion for interpreting and, if possible, correcting injustice. Thanks in large part to my upbringing, I tend to identify with the cause of protecting the less-protected, whether it’s a social group, eco-system or idea. Of course this tendency is all well and good in theory, but its tendance requires greater sedulity in practice. When Crist offered me the opportunity to come work and write for Raxa Collective this summer, to identify problems with and solutions for conservation initiatives in Kerala, I immediately snagged the opportunity, understanding it not only as one that would allow me to effect change, but also one that would test, probe, relax and strengthen my still-developing convictions.

In my posts over the next four weeks, besides providing personal insight into the wonders of the Periyar, Kumily, etc., I hope also to problematize and contextualize my own experiences, to illuminate some of the complexities inherent to preservation and conservation in a rapidly developing nation (and world), and offer possibilities for readers and travelers to get involved in the conversation.

With that in mind, I will try to offer non-political entry points into political questions, while not neglecting or forgetting the reason I’m here, or, for that matter, why anyone from outside Kerala would come here: the impossible rarity of its natural and cultural riches.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to comments. Let’s have a conservation conversation*!